Will this be Osborne's worst week yet?

A higher deficit and a triple-dip recession could make this week even worse for the Chancellor than the last one.

Even by recent standards, last week was not a good one for George Osborne. Unemployment was found to have increased by 70,000, the IMF's chief economist warned that he was "playing with fire" by persisting with austerity, Carman Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, two of the economists that the Chancellor leant heavily on to justify his economic approach, had their research on debt and growth discredited, and Fitch became the second credit rating agency to strip the UK of its AAA rating

But worse could be to come this week. Tomorrow, borrowing figures for March will be released, the final set for the 2012-13 financial year, and, for the first time since Osborne entered office, they could show that the deficit has risen in annual terms. At the Budget, the OBR forecast that borrowing would be £120.9bn in 2012-13, £100m less than in 2011-12, after the Treasury forced government departments to underspend by an extraordinary £10.9bn in the final months of this year and delayed payments to some international institutions such as the UN and the World Bank. But that £100m difference leaves the Chancellor with little room for error if tax revenues fall short or spending is higher than expected. Whether the deficit marginally rose or fell in 2012-13 is of little economic significance, but it is of immense political significance. Until now, even as growth has disappeared, the Chancellor has been able to boast that borrowing "is falling" and "will continue to fall each and every year". A higher deficit would make it far harder for him to claim that Britain is "on the right track".

Then, two days later, we will learn whether the UK has suffered its first-ever triple-dip recession when the ONS releases its estimate for GDP in Q1 of this year. Again, the Chancellor is expected to have a lucky escape, with most forecasters, in common with the OBR, predicting output of around 0.1 per cent. But that also leaves Osborne with little room for comfort if growth undershoots expectations (as it done so often has in recent history). IPPR's senior economist Tony Dolphin comments: "It is touch and go whether we triple dip, I would say 50/50. Retail sales were up a fraction in March, but manufacturing is expected to be flat and ­construction down. Services will be positive, but the question is whether it will be positive enough to offset construction." Again, whether output slightly grew or slightly shrank in the first quarter is of little economic signifinance. The broad picture is one of prolonged stagnation, with periods of growth alternating with periods of contraction. But as Osborne will know, it's the politics that matter. An unprecedented triple-dip would intensify the calls from all sides - Tory backbenchers, Vince Cable, Labour - for a change of approach, be it Keynesian stimulus or a supply-side revolution. 

There is one way that Osborne could avoid a triple-dip even if the economy is found to have shrunk in Q1: the preceding double-dip could be revised away. After previously estimating that output fell by 0.3 per cent in the final quarter of 2011, the ONS now says it fell by just 0.1 per cent. The number could be further upgraded this week. But such technicalities will count for little if the economy is reported to have shrunk again. 

Tory MPs previously suggested that they would demand the removal of Osborne if the economy failed to show signs of recovery by this time, with one telling the Daily Mail: "You wouldn’t get 80 people supporting Adam Afriyie for leader but you might get 80 or 100 people saying get rid of George." There is little prospect of Cameron acquiescing to such demands. The Prime Minister and his closest political ally continue to rise and fall together. But with the local elections just over a week away and Labour showing signs of strain, a renewed bout of Tory infighting would be unwelcome for Cameron. 

Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne attends a press conference at the Treasury in Whitehall on February 6, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Jeremy Corbyn challenged by Labour MPs to sack Ken Livingstone from defence review

Former mayor of London criticised at PLP meeting over comments on 7 July bombings. 

After Jeremy Corbyn's decision to give Labour MPs a free vote over air strikes in Syria, tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) meeting was less fractious than it could have been. But one grandee was still moved to declare that the "ferocity" of the attacks on the leader made it the most "uplifting" he had attended.

Margaret Beckett, the former foreign secretary, told the meeting: "We cannot unite the party if the leader's office is determined to divide us." Several MPs said afterwards that many of those who shared Corbyn's opposition to air strikes believed he had mishandled the process by appealing to MPs over the heads of the shadow cabinet and then to members. David Winnick declared that those who favoured military action faced a "shakedown" and deselection by Momentum activists. "It is completely unacceptable. They are a party within a party," he said of the Corbyn-aligned group. The "huge applause" for Hilary Benn, who favours intervention, far outweighed that for the leader, I'm told. 

There was also loud agreement when Jack Dromey condemned Ken Livingstone for blaming Tony Blair's invasion of Iraq for the 7 July 2005 bombings. Along with Angela Smith MP, Dromey demanded that Livingstone be sacked as the co-chair of Labour's defence review. Significantly, Benn said aftewards that he agreed with every word Dromey had said. Corbyn's office has previously said that it is up to the NEC, not the leader, whether the former London mayor holds the position. In reference to 7 July, an aide repeated Corbyn's statement that he preferred to "remember the brilliant words Ken used after 7/7". 

As on previous occasions, MPs complained that the leader failed to answer the questions that were put to him. A shadow minister told me that he "dodged" one on whether he believed the UK should end air strikes against Isis in Iraq. In reference to Syria, a Corbyn aide said afterwards that "There was significant support for the leader. There was a wide debate, with people speaking on both sides of the arguments." After David Cameron's decision to call a vote on air strikes for Wednesday, leaving only a day for debate, the number of Labour MPs backing intervention is likely to fall. One shadow minister told me that as few as 40-50 may back the government, though most expect the total to be closer to the original figure of 99. 

At the end of another remarkable day in Labour's history, a Corbyn aide concluded: "It was always going to be a bumpy ride when you have a leader who was elected by a large number outside parliament but whose support in the PLP is quite limited. There are a small number who find it hard to come to terms with that result."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.